‘Angels in America’: The Great Work continues almost 30 years later

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With the release of nominations on the morning of May 1, the current run of Tony Kushner’s 1991 play “Angels in America” became the the most Tony Award-nominated play in Broadway history.

“Angels in America” is a behemoth of a piece. It is split into two parts — “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” — with a combined run time of nearly eight hours. Over the course of these hours, characters visit everywhere from Antarctica to heaven, a book rises from the floor engulfed in flames, and an angel crashes through the ceiling (on multiple occasions). It’s not exactly an easy production or narrative.

The play is set at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It follows two couples on the verge of collapse and their friends. Joe Pitt is closeted, while his wife Harper is paranoid and addicted to Valium. Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS, a diagnosis that drives his lover, Louis, to flee.  

Yet despite all of this, the story has continued to return to audiences again and again. This persistence was almost unfathomable back in its original run at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. When it was first staged, “Perestroika” was not even completed, and it would be nearly three more years until AIDS deaths began to decline in the United States. “Angels” landed in a city and community under siege.

Kushner’s work is inherently political, but many of these politics are explored in a place of spiritual and magical realism. “Fuck you! I’m a prophet!” Prior spits at his ex-lover — but this isn’t an offhanded retort or a joke; it’s the truth. It’s not quite accurate to argue that Prior’s character arc is more important or compelling than any of the others’, not when we witness Roy Cohn’s repulsive, arresting descent or gay, Mormon, Republican lawyer Joe Pitt’s agonizing self-loathing. But it is upon Prior that the prophecy is bestowed, and it is Prior who is diagnosed with AIDS. Thus, if “Angels in America” is about anything, it’s more than politics — it’s life and hope in the face of death and despair, dichotomies that only Prior faces.

“Angels in America” was written during, and as a direct response to, a period of time in the LGBTQ+ community that my generation has never known. The epidemic is now felt only in the absences it wrought and the people it left behind. But in the face of these tragedies, there were victories. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been defeated. Gay marriage has been legalized. Reagan is dead.

And yet now, in 2018, “Angels in America” is playing on both coasts — and while it is certainly a masterpiece in its own right, something that should and could live on regardless of relevance, much of its appeal can be traced to the way the play feels as prophetic as Prior. The scenes are infused with dialogue that seems to reach through the years in an attempt to respond to the world of the here and now.

Turns out that God really has fled heaven in the face of humanity’s relentless motion, which has thrown the cosmos into turmoil. According to the Angels, it’s our fault — and to get him to return, we must stop moving, stop progressing and stop mingling. While the play ends with an emphatic rebuff of this commandment, present-day legislation could have been written by the Angels themselves — nothing halts movement like closed borders and militarized immigration enforcers.

And, of course, the play is full of conservative tirades. “Was it legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice,” Cohn rants in an eerily similar tone to that of the current president.

After all, Donald Trump, as Frank Rich so thoroughly laid out in his recent piece “The Original Donald Trump” for New York Magazine, was cut from the same cloth as Cohn, the character described by Louis as “the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” In fact, Trump was in attendance at the very party Louis is talking about.

Belize, a gay Black man and the only character of color in the play, calls attention to Louis’ racism on more than one occasion. “I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it,” he says.

And now that same America is headed by a president who tacitly approves white supremacy and a violently homophobic vice president whose policies helped spread HIV in his home state.

If the past few months and years have revealed anything, it’s that the relevance of “Angels in America” only seems to grow with each passing day. But how much of a difference can the show actually effect, running in cities such as New York or here in the Bay Area — the places in the country that hold the most ghosts from this epidemic. Pence may have hazarded a visit to “Hamilton,” but it’s doubtful he’d even think about stepping foot in “Angels in America.”

Yet it’s hard to feel like that matters — the play’s urgency is undeniable in that moment when something incomparably sacred settles over the theater as Prior gives his closing monologue. In the final moments of the play, he addresses the audience specifically, an address that is happening right now on a stage in Berkeley and thousands of miles away on a stage in Manhattan. He says: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. … The Great Work Begins.”

And so, the Great Work begins anew, every night — for as long as this play, and all the plays and voices it inspired, spin forward.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].